Our first hint that The Kitchen is more Widows than Ocean’s 8 comes fairly early on in the action, when we watch our three protagonists learn how to dismember a dead man’s body in a bathtub. As Irish mob hitman Gabriel (Domnhall Gleeson) explains the intricacies of sliced flesh, crunchy cartilage, and thick sinew, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) slink out of the room in disgust. Claire (Elisabeth Moss), on the other hand, leans forward, intent on getting it right. “Can I try?” she asks, in a tone bordering on cheerful glee.
It’s a completely disgusting scene, despite the audience seeing almost no blood. And yet, it sets the tone for a film that isn’t afraid of having its characters face the violent consequences of their plans to take over the Irish mob. They get their hands dirty — and we see them do it.
Of course, it’s really unfair to compare those three movies at all. The only thing they have in common is being a heist movie with an all-female cast. Linking them would be like lumping in Hell or High Water with The Italian Job (the 2003 remake starring Mark Wahlberg, not the original). The Kitchen is very much its own scrappy little movie, clunky at times, but with a surprisingly gritty underbelly that feels oddly refreshing in a space that still overly sanitises women’s action scenes.
Based on the Vertigo comic book series from DC Entertainment, written by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, The Kitchen opens with a montage of Kathy, Claire, and Ruby’s respective relationships with their husbands, members of the Irish mob operating out of Hell’s Kitchen, circa 1978. Kathy is a happily married mother of two, born and bred in the neighbourhood; Claire is barely getting by, desperately trying to survive an abusive husband; and Ruby, a black woman from Harlem who married into a highly racist community, is considered an “outsider” by all.
All three are housewives, dependent on their husbands for income and security. So, when those men are caught in an FBI raid and sent to jail, Kathy, Claire and Ruby are forced to fend for themselves. Their solution? Take the floundering mafia into their own hands. And you know what? They’re fucking good at it.
It’s an uphill battle, to be sure. These women are amateur gangsters, and director Andrea Berloff doesn’t gloss that part over. They don’t suddenly turn into Rambo, guns blazing, but neither are they bumbling or ditzy, their ignorance used for laughs. Instead, we follow them down the rabbit hole of violent crime, and watch them slowly learn the tricks of a trade that requires them to harness and wield their darkest impulses. And that’s part of the appeal of the movie. It’s rare to see women put in situations where we might actively dislike them for the kind of actions they’re taking. And though they might originally have done this as a matter of survival, it’s soon clear that they’re enjoying watching the fruits of their labor yield an empire that they can work to expand. In other words, they’re ambitious for the sake of their own success.
Casting comedy heavy-hitters Haddish and McCarthy is a bold move, presumably to get their large fanbase in cinemas. Once they’re in there though, audiences might get a bit of a shock. Though billed as a “crime comedy,” The Kitchen is much more the former than the latter. There’s humour, yes, but it’s pitch black — in fact, the tonal shifts can be a little jarring. (And yet, how many male-dominated films of the genre flit back and forth between laughter and violence?)
But McCarthy, who received a Best Actress nomination for her dramatic performance in last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and Haddish, who gives Ruby layers of mystery, ambition and terrifyingly steely resolve, are more than up to the task. They’re the masterminds of the operation, and to watch them face off when their interests start to diverge is a real treat.
Equally fascinating is Moss’ slow wonder at learning the assassin’s trade. This is a different character for her — not a leader born to raise hell, like in the Handmaid’s Tale, but rather a woman emerging from a lifetime of being told she’s nothing, and realising that she is indeed allowed to take up room in this world.
Add to that a cast of powerful supporting players — including Bill Camp (who plays the head of the Italian mob), Annabella Sciorra (his long-suffering wife who, in a nod to her tragic Sopranos past, tells the women she’s rooting for them), Brian D’Arcy James (Jimmy, Kathy’s husband), Common (head of the FBI task force targeting mob activity), Margo Martindale (Ruby’s despicable mother-in-law), and a very troublingly hot Gleeson in black leather — and you’ve got a pretty killer ensemble.
Berloff does a good job of having standout moments that feel specifically feminine, without veering into cliche one-liners so common among blockbusters boasting female leads. In one particularly funny moment, Claire wonders what to wear to a meeting with a rival mob boss. “Do you get dressed up?” she asks, as the others sigh. And yet, clothes are an essential part of their transformation — just as so many women wield sartorial choices like armour, so too do these characters start to dress up for battle. Sara Edwards’ costume design cleverly recreates the era without being obvious about it — many of the trio’s highly covetable outfits are some we might wear today.
Still, The Kitchen is so busy focusing on the idea of women taking up space that it sometimes overlooks who they’re taking it from. The fact is that when Kathy talks to neighbourhood shop owners about “criminals” invading the neighbourhood, they’re not so subtly referring to people of colour moving into the area, an idea threatening to the majority white residents. It’s uncomfortable, particularly in our current political climate of rampant white supremacy, to be cheering on a group of women, two of whom are white, shooting young black men down in the streets. The film doesn’t do enough to unpack Ruby’s feelings about her partners’ racism, and a twist that might go a long way towards explaining her own actions comes too late to really make a difference. There’s a difference between showing racism as a way to illustrate a time and place, and making us complicit, and The Kitchen awkwardly wobbles on that line.
Overall, the movie comes as a welcome, nasty surprise, a glimpse at the possibilities of giving women the anti-hero status that men have owned for so long.
The Kitchen is in UK cinemas from 20th September